Birds – American Merganser

(Merganser americanus)


Length—23 to 27 inches.

Male—Head, which is slightly crested, and upper neck, glossy greenish black; hind neck, breast, and markings on wings, white; underneath delicately tinted with salmon buff. Back black, fading to ashy gray on the lower part and tail. Wings largely white; tips of the coverts white, forming a mirror, and banded with black. Bill toothed and red, or nearly so, and with black hook, and nostrils near the middle.

Female and Young—Smaller than male; head and upper neck red-dish brown ; rest of upper parts and tail ashy gray ; breast and underneath white.

Range—North America generally, nesting from Minnesota north-ward, and wintering from New England, Illinois, and Kansas southward to southern States.

Season—Winter resident from November to April.

A surprising number of popular names have attached them-selves to this large, handsome swimmer that studiously avoids populated regions and the sight of man; that no sportsman would, or, indeed could, eat; that eludes pursuit by some very remarkable diving and swimming feats, and therefore enjoys popularity in names alone. Its preferences are for remote water-ways at the north, where its family life is spent, only a few nests being reported this side of the Canadian border; but when a hard crust of ice locks up their fish, frogs, mollusks, and other aquatic animal food, small companies of six or eight mergansers migrate to our lakes, rivers, and the ocean shore to hunt there until spring. Salt and fresh water are equally enjoyed.

Feeding appears to be the chief object in life of this gluttonous bird that often swallows a fish too large to descend entire into the stomach, and must remain in the distended throat until digested piecemeal. Its saw–like bill for holding slippery prey, and rough tongue covered with incurved projections like a cat’s, doubtless help speed the process of digestion, which is so rapid as to keep the bird in a constant state of hunger, and drive it to desperate rashness to secure its dinner. It will plunge beneath a rushing torrent after a fish, or dive to great depths to secure it, swimming under water with long and splendidly powerful, dexterous strokes that soon overtake the fish in its own element. These feats, with the sudden dropping out of sight practiced so artfully by the loons, make a merganser an exceedingly difficult mark for the sportsman to hit; and its muscular, tough, rank flesh offers no reward for his efforts. Usually these birds depend upon the water to escape danger; but when disturbed in a shallow fishing ground, a flock seems to run along the water for a few yards, patting it with their strongly webbed feet, then rising to windward, they head off in straight, strong, and rapid flight, toward distant shelter.

The adult male in his nuptial dress is a conspicuously beautiful fellow, with his dark, glossy green head, rich salmon-colored breast, and black and white wings, set off by a black back. But this attire is not worn until maturity, in the second year; and in the intervening time, as well as after the nesting season is over, he looks much like his mate and their young. Birds whose upper parts show the grayish brown that predominates when we see them in winter are called ” dun divers” in many sections. It is the male bird in spring plumage that the taxidermist mounts to decorate the walls of dining-rooms and shooting lodges.

Mergansers build a nest of leaves, grasses, and moss, lined with down from their breasts, in a hole of a tree or cliff, where from six to ten creamy-buff eggs are laid in June, and tended exclusively by the mother, even after they have evolved into fluffy ducklings. At this time the drake is undergoing a thorough moult.